Massive spoilers throughout this post so don’t read it if you haven’t seen it.
This movie is amazing in so many ways, I love it. It has a lot to say about a lot of different things, but really does flub it via its cast representation. The cast is actually fantastic, but its minority actors all got screwed over with really small/important roles. Like I wouldn’t even change the cast itself.
It really sucks because you have a movie where the main plotline is about the white male protagonist learning that he’s not special, and sacrificing himself so that this diverse group of people can step forward and have a better life. And when Deckard pops up and talks a bit about the birth of the resistance groups and stuff, he even says outright that once that began his job was to step aside, and it’s easy to see that as a parallel to K’s own story. But it’s hard not to see that as anything but “performative wokeness” when the movie hits the brick wall of putting Hiam Abbas and Lennie James in it in roles that ostensibly have a lot to say about the setting and story, but only for like one minute.
I don’t go into every movie expecting it to cover every base perfectly, but this felt like a really obvious omission to me, and one that happened out of laziness regarding the aesthetic’s roots in 70s/early 80s European comics, Heavy Metal Magazine, etc.
You have a look where the future is “diverse” on paper but is to me failing to escape the fetishized exoticism of non-white people seen in many of those comics. The way there was that almost on schedule the movie shows us a sign that has non-English text on it just to say “Hey look how weird this place is” but not really doing any world-building (or character building) beyond that. Robin Wright’s character has a Nepalese surname, Jared Leto gets to wear a kimono, the future here feels more “colonized” than it does in the original movie just from its placement of extras and its character designs. The original’s look was born out of Japan bashing, but even despite some music tracks like Damask Rose it never gave me the same feeling as 2049 does about this.
Everything else about the movie is, to me, incredible, and I feel like it actually surpasses the original in some ways (though the original remains my favorite movie ever) but this was the one thing that stood out to me as poorly handled.
I don’t know, like is this the price to get the budget for a slow burn borderline art film like this?
Something really awesome about this movie is its cynical (and correct) commentary on capitalism and commodification of the female body. Jared Leto’s Wallace resides in womb room with a literal replicant birth canal in it. And like Tyrell in the first movie is basically God as far as the setting goes. He’s aided in colonizing our solar system but wants more. And even in wanting more, even in having such grand plans for humanity, even being as advanced a person as we assume he must be because of his position and vast wealth, he’s still just another white dude that only sees women as the life support system for their ability to reproduce. He’s also literally, character design-wise a guy surrounded with the most advanced technology in human history that has no vision. This white male wannabe God character is a nice brazen stand-in for the Elon Musks of the world (Leto has said he based the performance some folks in that world he’s met personally) but also for regressive policy and government regarding women’s bodies, and I think the movie is pretty brave for being so open about that for a big budget intended to be mainstream release.
His endgame is seen in K, a company run by an insanely rich white man that bio-engineers powerful white men to serve as customers for women like JOI or Luv who arguably can not even think for themselves.
That brings us to JOI, JOI was one of the most effective things in the movie and it’s been interesting to see how arguments about her nature have become this movie’s “Is Deckard a replicant?” Whelp, much like that question the point isn’t the argument but that she may as well be real to K and therefore she’s real. He’s devastated when he sees that ad and it really hits him how much of her conversation was pre-made, but it also makes us see how far JOI has come from the demo in that ad. In her first scene she’s like a by the numbers chatbot. She starts talking about a book to him, K begins to say he’s not too interested in reading at the moment and she cuts him off with a sudden “OH I DON’T FEEL LIKE READING RIGHT NOW ANYWAY!” She starts out like you’d expect this sort of program to by just being a compliant reflection of whatever its user is talking about. K ends up being a hero because of how much he felt JOI really believed in him, that’s awesome.
Luv is almost more interesting though. You know how K gets that calibration test done on him every 48 hours? He has to stay stable while completing lines of a poem, the poem itself is Pale Fire and (read more about it here http://www.cinepunx.com/Writing/cells-interlinked-br2049/) gave me the impression that the replicants in 2049 are less “programmed” and more “brainwashed,” the intro seems more optimistic because it just tells you they’re allowed on earth again, but it’s still an existence where they only ever exist as product.
Anyway that brings us to Luv, Luv is the best replicant, and was clearly programmed to enjoy kicking ass. She kills a few people throughout the movie, but we see her shed a tear at two points. One is when Wallace stabs that newly birthed replicant that still can’t carry a child, the other is when she kills Joshi. These two victims have nothing in common besides being female, but Wallace’s total dismissal of the female body beyond an object he wishes to fully control so that it will regularly and only give birth on his terms seems to set something off in her. Despite all the stuff she does throughout the movie I was kind of hoping she’d live.
We see Luv’s tear at this not long after K is ordered to find and kill that naturally born replicant and is similarly taken aback. These are both characters created to kill on command, but both are troubled and hesitant during the scene where they each get orders from their boss. K because he as a Blade Runner cop, he hesitates on spiritual grounds of someone being born naturally being someone that has a soul and is therefore a real person. This annoys his boss but it also makes sense, he’s probably not designed to knowingly kill humans, only replicants. Luv is a character who seems conflicted because on some level she doesn’t want to hand over the total destiny of replicants to this guy, but at the same time is designed to be the best replicant, and so tries to carry this out as ruthlessly as possible.
With all of this the movie seemed to be about the shifting in power of gender dynamics over time, and we get four different reactions to that from four different female characters in Joshi, JOI, Luv, and Freysa through their treatment of the naturally born replicant. Joshi is terrified of an uncertain future and wants the status quo preserved at all costs by obliterating even the possibility of any change in society. JOI falls into a supporting role of whatever K wants (even after she gains more agency and self awareness), leaving it up to him, Luv realizes what’s going on but also realizes she becomes worthless the second she’s not fulfilling her purpose, and so also goes into a supporting role for Wallace, and Freysa thinks the best thing is to kill off Deckard to keep the special replicant’s location/etc. a secret so that she can withhold her until we’re at the “right time” to deal with it.
It’s pretty grim because of how much it reflects reality,* but at the end, through dealing with all four of these characters, K chooses to let this new chosen one replicant decide for herself what to do. He does what Deckard did and sacrifices everything to step aside to let this imprisoned (I believe Stelline’s syndrome was a false way to keep her secluded and also a pun on the technology term Galapagos Syndrome) woman - the only character in the movie who creates, not just via childbirth and via her art - step up on her own terms. The ending is still bittersweet, as I think a big part of the movie is that we know all of these issues exist but we have yet to really deal with them at all on a level that actually changes anything. Villeneuve says that visually in a lot of ways throughout the movie, one of my favorites is the giant nude statue in Vegas vs. the giant JOI ad seen right after they leave Vegas. Humanity and replicants have survived so much and gone through so much but that’s still where we’re at with the culture corporations and capitalism creates.
*But also because of how visually accurate it is to the book egarding how environmentally crushed the planet is and how much of its infrastructure is dead. The massive rows of housing with no electricity seen earlier in the movie are chilling.